Life-Threatening Law Library Lavatories, 1874

From the Freeman’s Journal, 18 June 1874:

“The life of a barrister practising in the Four Courts is imperilled by two distinct sets of circumstances. In the first place there is in summer the all-pervading Liffey stench. In the second place there is all the year round the noisesome den known as the Library. The Library is the place where barristers work up their cases, and it is also the place where it is understood that attorneys will find the barristers whom they want. During parts of the day, then, considerably over a hundred men are in the Library at the same time.

Now, the apartment is entirely too small for such a throng – would not in fact supply a proper amount of air and space to half the number… the lighting of the place is bad, and the closets are only a couple of feet from the room, instead of being entirely detached, as one of the first canons of sanitary science teaches us. Small, close, dark, stuffy and malodorous, it is astonishing how a number of educated men tolerate passing a great portion of their lives in a place which must tend to shorten life, as is evidenced by the fact that a man is utterly prostrated by an amount of work done in the Library which would have no effect whatsoever on him if done out of it.”

It sounds like the toilet facilities in the first Law Library were earth closets consisting of a seat over a pail to which deodorising substances were regularly added. This operated to remove any smells almost immediately – provided the closet was well ventilated and housed in a separate, outdoors building. The truly abysmal ventilation in the Law Library must have rendered the system largely ineffective!

Unknown to medical science at the time, there was another, very good, reason for keeping earth closets outdoors – the deodorising substances used included potential carcinogens. One wonders how many premature deaths resulted from the first Law Library’s truly unfortunate sanitary arrangements!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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